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My interview with Disney collaborator and Mary Poppins actor Pete Menefee who revealed the dangerous details behind filming the Step in Time scene from the movie.
I am a huge fan of the Disney movie Mary Poppins. Bert was my favorite; I’ve had a crush on Bert since the moment I saw his one-man band. This week, Disney releases the 50th Anniversary Special Edition of Mary Poppins and in the classic movie, you’ll recall the awesome foot work of a few chimney sweeps against an evening skyline. While attending the Disney Frozen premier, we had the pleasure of meeting one of those dancing chimney sweeps, and he’s a man of many talents. Meet Mr. Pete Menefee, rooftop dancer, movie star and long-time Disney collaborator.
Now 71-years-old, Pete Menefee recalls memories of which many of us only dream. At 17-years-old he was in West Side Story and at 21, he was dancing on the rooftops in Mary Poppins. He starred in Bye Bye Birdie, five movies with Elvis Presley as well as multiple beach party movies, popular during that time.
Behind the scenes of the Disney classic, Mary Poppins
Watching the movie Mary Poppins, I can’t imagine being able to perform some of the stunts that those actors performed, jumping and somersaulting around on rooftops. “The movie was rehearsed here in June and July of ’63 and I don’t know how many of you live in the valley, but it’s warm here.” Menefee said the actors were allowed to rehearse in swim trunks because of the heat.
“They built a set [that was] very springy so no one’s legs would get messed up like you do dancing on the concrete or hard surfaces and the entire set that you see – all the rooftops, all the chimney tops, all the railings, everything – was built as a floating unit because they didn’t really know until they set the dance number with the configuration of the rooftop was gonna be,” said Menefee.
Menefee also shared with us the scarier parts of the famous Mary Poppins musical scene, Step In Time. “Three guys really did do flip flops between two buildings… It means that you’re throwing yourself over and catching yourself on your hands three times with a 15 foot drop below you and it’s grim. It is grim.”
According the Menefee, actors would jump split and then tuck in and pull their knees up and the guy would trip a trap door in the chimney, allowing the actor to fall into it. At the bottom was a mattress on which they’d fall and a door front so that they could roll out, allowing the next actor to do the same.
“It was like eight feet,” Menefee said. “It was like eight feet which is a long. That wasn’t the bad part. The bar part was the chimney opening wasn’t that big.”
DID YOU KNOW? After the filming of a complicated and dangerous dance number, Step in Time, finished, the actors were informed that there was a scratch on the film and that it would have to be redone. At one point during the filming of the second take, one of the actors became lodged in the chimney, causing the following actors to also become stuck until the scene was over.
“By the time I got to be in my mid 20s, it dawned on me finally that this was a young person’s racket,” Menefee jokes. “That, you know, you weren’t gonna be jumping down chimneys when you were 37 years old and I decided to try something else.” Menefee decided to call on his drawing skills to take him beyond just being in front of the camera.
“I started out as a sketch artist right across the street at NBC as a staff sketch artist and became a costume designer,” said Menefee. In a fun circle of events, he was part of Mary Poppins in 1963 and 10 years later, in 1973, he was dressing Julie Andrews for the opening special at Walt Disney World in Florida.
For years after, he had successful design project after another, including Las Vegas cabaret shows, Circus of The Stars, Miss Universe and dressing Peggy Fleming for an NBC Christmas special. Menefee is a little bit rock and roll, as well.
“I’ve done a lot of rock and roll. I [designed] all the Motown stuff. I’ve done Diana. I did the Pimps, the Tops, the Jackson Five, Michael, everybody and this was my favorite, favorite group to work on,” Menefee said as he showed an elaborate costume for the band Kiss. “Cher was going with Gene Simmons at the time and Cher wanted Bob to do their clothes for this tour and Bob really wasn’t interested and I had space number at Reno.”
Be sure to see Pete Menefee and the other rooftop chimney sweep dancers, among which is Bert – my favorite – and the incomparable Julie Andrews in the 50th Anniversary Edition of Mary Poppins, available this week!